Though Gore Verbinski has made a name for himself with large Hollywood studio pictures like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Lone Ranger,” he’s always had a weird streak; a “one for them, one for me” mentality, interspersing in films like “The Weather Man” and “Rango.” “A Cure for Wellness,” a horror film set at a spa in the Swiss Alps, is most definitely one for him.
Here, “wellness” could easily be a euphemism for “wealth.” A powerful Wall Street banker, Pembroke (Harry Groener), runs off to a Swiss spa and writes back to his comrades about truths that he can’t unsee and that he’s not returning. An upstart young banker, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), is sent to retrieve him to stave off a business emergency, pressed into action by his superiors with threats of blackmail.
Lockhart swaggers into the spa like he owns the place, but it’s not easy to get his boss on the next red-eye back to New York. He suffers a car accident and broken leg, and everyone keeps pushing the special water on him. Once you check in, it’s near impossible to check out. He’s ultimately drawn into the morbid tale of the place’s history, about a mad baron, a baroness, his sister, and the villagers who burned them to the ground.
There’s a scene near the end of the comedy “Fist Fight” — not long before the altercation promised in the title — that more than makes up for whatever weak-sauce comedic sins have gone before. Let’s just say that the combo of Big Sean’s unprintable hit rap, star Charlie Day’s nebbishy physicality and a young girl’s school talent show is comedy gold.
If the rest of the film were as uproarious, “Fist Fight” would rank up there with the “Jump Street” reboots in the “funny movies featuring Ice Cube” category. As it stands, “Fist Fight” is a pleasantly foul-mouthed exercise that gets by on the chemistry of its two stars: Cube, with his NWA-trained death glare, and Day, who basically recycles his likably hapless yet inventive character from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” into a more responsible suburban dad.
One of the weaknesses of most Batman films is that they’re unwilling to question the nature of Batman himself, to interrogate the vigilante who patrols Gotham City single-handedly and anonymously. On paper, what Batman represents isn’t all that great — Bruce Wayne is a privileged one-percenter, an individualist who happily bypasses government programs to work alone and decide what’s best and who’s bad or not.
Which is why “The LEGO Batman Movie” is quite possibly the best Batman movie ever made, if not a close runner up to “Batman Returns.” Liberated from the constraints of “dark,” “edgy” or even “campy,” “LEGO Batman” is able to poke fun at the costumed gentleman hero, and really dig into the elements of Batman that make the character who he is, for better or for worse. Who’da thunk you’d get all that from the sequel to an adaptation of building blocks.
If you didn’t catch 2014’s surprise action hit “John Wick,” launching Keanu Reeves right into a Liam Neeson-style career rebirth, it’s OK. Peter Stormare is here to explain “John Wick” to you at the beginning of “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Playing a Russian gangster, he serves as a connection to the prior film, wherein retired assassin Wick killed everyone in sight while avenging his dog. In fairness, the dog was really cute. Stormare serves as an audience proxy, a fan of Wick. “He killed three men in a bar with pencil!” Stormare exclaims. And in the way that every character recognizes him on sight, uttering “John Wick…,” it’s like they all saw the first movie too.
Writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski are back for the sequel alongside Reeves, brewing up more of that uniquely Wickian magic. The screenplay is once again taciturn, nearly wordless; Wick speaks infrequently, in monosyllables (perfect for Reeves’ stoner intonation), and new co-star Ruby Rose doesn’t utter a word. But the film is noisy, speaking in the whine of motorcycles, rumbling engines, gunshots, knife swipes and text message alerts announcing a bounty on John Wick’s head.
Call it “The Unspectacular Now.”
“The Space Between Us” aims to be an epic story of young love on the level of “The Spectacular Now” or “The Fault in Our Stars.” The cinematography often is gorgeous and the score is full of teary uplift. But none of that matters when little about the film feels authentic.
Tragically unfunny, “The Comedian” reminds us that not even great actors can knock one out of the park every time.
Despite a talent pool of A-list players accomplished in film, TV and stage, this crude, crass, lowbrow comedy has a title that seems bracketed by irony quotes. Burdened with a choppy, poorly conceived script, “The Comedian” is impossible to enjoy on any level whatsoever.
Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky said there are two kinds of scenes in screenplays: “the Pet the Dog scene and the Kick the Dog scene.” Canine love letter “A Dog’s Purpose” manages to work in both. You might be surprised that this sappy, family-friendly tribute to man’s best friend kills its main character within mere moments. A stray puppy is snapped up by an evil, net-wielding dog catcher, and soon he’s off to that nice farm in the sky, before his rebirth. This serves as the starting point for the circle of life and metaphysical journey of our puppy protagonist.
From a Judeo-Christian perspective, the prevailing notion may be that all dogs indeed go to heaven, but “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, takes a different approach, suggesting that dogs are constantly reincarnated. We follow the lives of a pup voiced by Josh Gad: first, briefly, the stray puppy; then a red retriever named Bailey in the 1960s and ’70s; Ellie, a German Shepherd K-9 police dog; Tino, a chubby ’80s corgi; and finally Buddy, a neglected St. Bernard with a long road home.
It’s been said that Matthew McConaughey is a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. After his rom-com hunk period in the 2000s, he had his “McConnaissance,” delving deeply into character work in “Bernie,” “Magic Mike” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” on TV in “True Detective,” and in “Dallas Buyers Club,” for which he won an Oscar. His latest film, “Gold,” directed by Stephen Gaghan, is his most extreme character work yet, with him playing a balding, paunchy, cigarette chomping gold prospector in the 1980s, and yet McConaughey is so good he makes it work.
McConaughey tears into this role “inspired by true events,” playing Kenny Wells, a third generation Reno mining prospector, carrying the Washoe Mining Company through the good times and the bad. By 1988, he and his employees are operating out of a local bar, trying to get investors on the hook to fund mineral mines around the world. Kenny’s at the end of his rope when he has a dream — a vision during a whiskey soaked slumber — of a verdant tropical valley ripe with undiscovered gold.
Illumination Entertainment, the team behind the Minions, branch out into the world of all talking, dancing, singing creatures great and small, mashing that up with the wildly popular phenomenon of singing competition reality shows. The result, “Sing,” is an amusing riff on genres, a “Zootopia Idol,” if you will, and it comes as a surprise that someone hadn’t thought of this combination already.
But while the film takes its introductory cues from shows like “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “X Factor,” with an all-too-brief audition montage that is jam-packed with truly wonderful moments (A water buffalo crooning Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”? Twerking bunnies? All that and more), it transforms into an old school backstage musical that celebrates the magic of putting on a show.
We seem to be shooting our best movie stars into outer space with alarming frequency. George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon and now Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have all been rocketed out of the stratosphere. Perhaps they’re trying to make the best impression possible with alien life forms. Maybe they’re seeking to colonize new worlds of moviegoers. In any case, the stars have never looked so starry.
And the movies — “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian” — have been among the best blockbusters in recent years. Space isn’t just the last frontier; it’s the new Western.
In 2015, director Justin Kurzel and actors Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard teamed up for a prestigious cinematic adaptation, a bloody, mad take on “Macbeth.” In 2016, the trio moved from Shakespeare to ... a video game? Taking on the popular “Assassin’s Creed” game seems like quite the left turn, and while the results aren’t as striking as the previous outing — it’s pretty uneven — the film is thoroughly stamped with Kurzel’s unique visual style, which makes for an exciting, if strange ride.
There is a complicated and deep mythology behind the game, and the film follows it mostly faithfully. Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is a death row inmate with a violent childhood. He is put to death by lethal injection, but wakes up in a clinic at the shadowy Abstergo corporation. The lead scientist there, Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Cotillard) claims she’s researching “the cure to violence.”
Every generation gets the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” that speaks most trenchantly to the evolving cultural issues of our time. Apparently, ours is “Why Him?” where the young suitor isn’t racially other, but from a completely different planet when it comes to culture, values and social norms. That planet? Silicon Valley.
In “Why Him?,” directed by John Hamburg, written by Hamburg, Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill, Stanford senior Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), invites her tight-knit Michigan family to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, Laird (James Franco). It’s only appropriate, seeing as their first introduction to the man was his unexpected naked rear on their video chat screen at dad Ned’s (Bryan Cranston) birthday celebration. And when the Flemings land in the Bay Area, they’re in for a cultural odyssey they could never have expected.
It’s right there in the title, and “Rogue One” proves to be most definitely a “Star Wars” story. As a spinoff chapter with a cast of new characters and a darker, grittier look and tone, the possibilities were endless for just how different “Rogue One” could be. The wait is over and the results are in: It doesn’t break the mold in terms of franchise formula, and it’s an enjoyable installment in the “Star Wars” canon. However, it’s not much more than that.
The title separates “Rogue One” from “Episodes” 1-7, but it feels like watching an episode of a series, despite the self-contained story. Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards, it uses the same well-established cinematic language of “Star Wars.” In terms of the timeline, consider “Rogue One” to be around Episode 3½, a chapter of Rebel Alliance history briefly alluded to in “Episode 4 — A New Hope.”
Rage radiates silently from Lee Chandler, the antisocial handyman played by Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” While fixing faucets and fans for the residents of a working-class Boston suburb, Lee is polite as can be, although it doesn’t take many drinks before he’s pummeling innocent bystanders in a bar. As we’ll eventually learn, Lee’s violence is really directed at himself.
Affleck is something to behold in this poignant drama by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), but that won’t surprise anyone who’s been following the actor for the past 20 years. Since his breakout role in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” (1995), Affleck has become the art-house counterpart to his movie-star brother, consistently turning in quiet, compelling performances in such under-the-radar films as “Gerry” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Affleck essentially carries his latest movie — he’s in nearly every scene — and does so in his usual understated, effortless way.
“Collateral Beauty” should win some kind of award for Best Execution of a Truly Dreadful Concept. Chock-a-block with magnetic movie stars, and shot beautifully by talented cinematographer Maryse Alberti, all twinkling lights and Christmas in the city, it looks like an important and meaningful film. That’s all smoke and mirrors. Stars and cinematography can’t save the story, which is a misguided tale filled with armchair philosophizing and ultimately meaningless twists.
It feels as though screenwriter Allan Loeb thought up the term “collateral beauty,” thought it was neat, and then reverse-engineered a story where the characters could say “collateral beauty” a lot. “Look for the collateral beauty,” they say. Does that refer to Mr. Rogers’ idea of looking for the helpers in a crisis? Not really, nope. It’s a phrase that seems like something the teenage Wes Bentley from “American Beauty” would have invented while chasing a plastic bag down the street with a camcorder.
Barry Jenkins’ beautiful “Moonlight” seems to have more in common with poetry than with a typical narrative film. It’s less a story than a collection of moments, which leaves its viewer feeling moved and changed, as if you’ve spent time in someone else’s dreams and woke up understanding who they are. Based on a work by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (its first incarnation was lyrically titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”), it’s a three-act drama unfolding over two decades, in which a gay black man comes of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.
We first meet Chiron as a 10-year-old nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert); the action then moves forward to Chiron as a teen (Ashton Sanders), and finally an adult whose street name is Black (Trevante Rhodes). The child Chiron is wide-eyed and mostly silent; he’s wondering why he feels the way he does about other boys, and why his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) doesn’t seem to love him. That boy vanishes into the teen, bullied at school but beginning to know what he wants, then flows into the man — who still, as an old friend tells him, “can’t say more than three words at a time.”
“Princess” is what the demigod Maui calls Moana, the teenage namesake of Disney’s latest animated film. Moana doesn’t want the title — it sounds a little condescending — but Maui persists. “You’re in a dress and you’ve got an animal sidekick,” he points out. “You’re a princess.”
That’s a stereotype Disney itself has helped create since 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but the studio has been steadily updating its attitude for the gender-equal 21st century. “Tangled,” about a rebellious Rapunzel, was an early attempt in 2010, but it was “Frozen” (2013) that turned girl power into box-office gold and topped the Billboard charts with the hear-me-roar anthem “Let It Go.” Although “Moana” may not strike the same chords — despite several catchy songs co-written by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — it’s a spirited and beautifully animated adventure story that never sells its young heroine short.
If you like a little sour lemon juice in your holiday eggnog, “Bad Santa 2” just might suit your taste. This sequel to the anti-sentimental comedy “Bad Santa” — a modern classic from 2003 — reunites its main cast for another round of heartless behavior and low-stooping jokes. Even an R-rated Christmas comedy, though, should offer us a little comfort and joy, something “Bad Santa 2” seems determined not to do.
Billy Bob Thornton returns as Willie Soke, the safecracking Saint Nick, along with Tony Cox as his elfin helpmate, Marcus. When we last saw him, Willie had created an ersatz family with Sue (Lauren Graham), a woman with a convenient Santa Claus fetish, and chubby Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a boy with more heart than brains. Thirteen years later, Sue is gone, Thurman is on his own and Willie is back to his hard-drinking ways. The film opens with Willie writing a note and sticking his head in the oven.
Not succeeding as a World War II drama, spy thriller or love story, “Allied” is what you will find in the dictionary if you look up “insipid.” It’s hard to squander the star power of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard together, especially if they’re handsomely costumed and smooching a lot, but somehow it has been done. If it was a student-thesis feature in film school, it would barely earn a passing grade. It is vanilla banality run amok.
Here we have Pitt at his poker-faced worst, playing a deadly Canadian spy/assassin parachuting behind German lines, donning retro-stylish civilian disguises and carrying off machine gun raids resembling rejected outtakes from “Inglourious Basterds.” Let me repeat that so you don’t think I have made a mistake. Pitt plays a two-fisted, rock-hard espionage agent and trigger man — from Canada. By speaking in an accent that has never been within 1,000 miles of Montreal.
What better way to round out the month of November 2016 than with a hectic, over-stuffed biopic about an eccentric billionaire despot who uses his inherited wealth to make a giant mess of things in both the entertainment industry and federal government? Truly, there’s a deep sense of irony in the release date of Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes film, “Rules Don’t Apply.” And yet, it would still be a stinker even if it wasn’t cloaked in a dark shroud of cultural and political relevancy. It’s just that bad.
Beatty, on screen for the first time in 15 years, plays the notoriously weird Hollywood and aviation mogul Hughes in the film, which he directed and co-wrote. He has rounded up every single up-and-coming young actor, his wife Annette Bening, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and no less than four credited film editors to aid in this endeavor, and yet the finished product is still a profoundly annoying and torturously long unstructured meander through five years of Hughes’ life, from 1959 to 1964.
As soon as the familiar twinkly score starts up and the eerie blue Warner Brothers logo appears on screen before “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” you’re transported back to that oh-so-familiar magical world spun by the keys of J.K. Rowling. It feels like plunging into a bath. But it’s definitely not all-too-familiar — there isn’t a butterbeer or an owl in sight. “Fantastic Beasts” is “Harry Potter” with adults, with the added pizzazz of all the salacious trappings of 1926 Jazz Age New York to spice up the style.
Our hero is a tousle-haired, stoop-shouldered ginger from the fair isle of Britain, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He arrives in New York City the way many of the immigrants who made this country great did, through Ellis Island. But the one shady thing he smuggles through customs is a battered suitcase that growls, hisses and rattles. Those would be the fantastic beasts with which the film is concerned — they’re outlawed in the U.S. magical world, which is strictly kept secret from the No-Majs (aka Muggles).